Labor & Employment

Former Michigan Law Prof Fights Alleged Gay Bias

A cutting-edge breach-of-contract case brought by a former law professor denied tenure at the University of Michigan could have an impact on gay bias claims and education law nationwide, depending on its outcome.

Because there is no law in Michigan protecting employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the university’s anti-discrimination policy isn’t legally binding, Peter Hammer’s protest of what he views as a clearly discriminatory 2002 tenure vote had to take a different legal tack, according to Bloomberg and Inside Higher Ed.

So the openly gay health law and Southeast Asia expert, who is now a tenured law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, has filed a state court breach-of-contract claim over his tenure denial. The decision, he contends, was infected by anti-gay bias violating university assurances that formed part of his employment contract, and he is seeking reinstatement and back pay.

Before he accepted the Michigan job in 1995, he was assured that his sexual orientation wouldn’t be a problem, Hammer tells Bloomberg. But, in fact, he believes, anti-gay bias permeated the process, costing him crucial votes required to win tenure. The 18-12 tally fell two votes short of what he needed.

“He was induced to take the job because of the same-sex benefits and nondiscrimination policy at the school, and turned down other offers because he relied on that,” explains Barbara Nevin, a lawyer at Milavetz, Gallop & Milavetz in Minneapolis. Nevin is watching the legal action with interest from the sidelines. “He has a case,” she tells the news agency.

Michigan officials declined to discuss the case, but have said in pleadings that Hammer’s scholarship, not anti-gay bias, tipped the scales in favor of denying him tenure. Additionally, the Inside Higher Ed article points out that the unusual case raises a troubling issue by litigating over alleged personal views of faculty members making tenure decisions.

Links to many pleadings in the case are provided by the Hammer v. University of Michigan law blog.

A hearing is scheduled next month, at which the university is expected to ask a state Court of Claims judge in Ingham County for a dismissal after almost three years of litigation and some $200,000 spent in defense costs. The case is Hammer v. Board of Regents of the University of Michigan, No. 04-241-MK.

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